Like her protagonist Temperance Brennan, crime novelist Dr. Kathy Reichs is a forensic anthropologist who divides her time between Montreal and North Carolina, and for years worked for the Quebec government’s Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale. Soon after Reichs’s bestselling 1997 debut Déjà Dead, the hit television show Bones was created based on her work and characters, and ran on Fox TV for 12 years.
Brennan’s latest adventure seems to speak directly to the current cultural moment. In A Conspiracy of Bones (out now), Reichs explores a world where internet cranks become credible media celebrities, the Dark Web propagates anti-vaccination propaganda and conspiracy theories – such as the suggestion that SARS was developed as a biological weapon – persist. And our heroine attempts to debunk all this while recovering from neurosurgery after a cerebral aneurysm. On the eve of publication, Reichs spoke with Nathalie Atkinson from her home in Charlotte, N.C., about alternative facts, anticipating the zeitgeist and why this novel hits closer to home than most.
In the endnotes you divulge the reason you didn’t publish a book last year: Similar to Temperance, you were diagnosed with an unruptured cerebral aneurysm and later underwent an embolization procedure. What made you decide to share that information with readers?
You know, I’m not sure. Because that’s not my personality, to share – I’m usually very protective of my private life. I think that developed because of the nature of the work I was doing. I didn’t want certain elements to know where they could find me. So that’s probably why I tended to be protective of my privacy, and I think a lot of people in law enforcement and in my line of work are that way. Why did I decide to alter it? It seemed like it was a way to personalize her and, just as I made her a forensic anthropologist, it just seemed like it would be something I knew about because I’d gone through it myself – rather than try to give her an ulcer or a stroke. And because the book is questioning what perceptions can we believe, what can we trust – both on a personal level and on a much broader level.
That central question about reliability of judgment – as she gets headaches and, possibly, hallucinations, also seems antithetical to her professional life.
She’s having to work completely on the outside. She’s been exiled, banned from the lab by this new boss with whom she has history. She’s having this personal issue, and then she loses all of the data that she has collected and her lifeblood is data – kinda like the “squints” on Bones, you never speculate, you always have hard facts, data, observation, experimentation. When she loses all that and has to rely on her own brain and her own perceptions, can she trust them? On the higher level, people are now inundated with all kinds of information – how do we know what information out there is real and what is not real? What is fake news and what is alternative facts, and what is actual?
At a time when scientific propaganda and unfounded theories are rampant, did you feel a responsibility to step up and address it head on?
I don’t know that it’s a responsibility – the bottom line, even in my fiction, is that it has to be a good story. That’s your ultimate goal. But I do like to have a broader social message in there somewhere, whether it’s trafficking in endangered species or human trafficking or human-rights abuses – the Guatemala book [Grave Secrets] for example. I also try to think about what’s going to be an issue, what’s gonna be in people’s minds and in the public interest a ways down the road.
What are some other things capturing your attention right now that could potentially surface in a later book?
Well, right in front of me I have a tome called Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance. I am working on book number 20 and that should give you a little hint!
Temperance is adamant, especially with her new boss, about maintaining a certain dignity and discretion for dead bodies and cold cases. How do you decide what you will and won’t use in a book?
I do draw and have drawn on real-life cases and experiences. I will take just a central idea from a case and then change all of the details – all of the names and places and dates – both for ethical and legal reasons. You don’t want to name anyone and you don’t want to reveal anything that would compromise or embarrass that person. When I do use cases, I use only details that have been in the public domain, that have either appeared in the media or in court testimony and documents. But still, you want to be aware of the sensitivity. For example, I’m just reading now about how – apparently, allegedly – photos of the Kobe Bryant crash scene were leaked. That’s just absolutely inexcusable! And devastating to his family. So you never ever want to do anything like that.
Anyone in a field that involves specialized knowledge who sees their profession portrayed in popular culture must really grit their teeth. Was that a motivator when you decided to start writing science-driven whodunnits?
What was on the air, back in the mid-1990s, was the O.J. Simpson trial. People were just being inundated with blood spatter pattern analysis, DNA and cut-mark analysis. There was this tremendous appetite for it, and I think that was one of the things that I took note of. I’m not claiming to be the first person to write a science-driven thriller – but where the protagonist is, first of all, a strong female character, I felt it was the time for that. And I just sensed in the air that there was a public interest coming. And then we got the TV show.
What else do you want to explore with Temperance?
She’s gotta make some decisions with regards to Ryan [her beau]. She’s just too skittish – granted, she had a bad experience before, but give the guy a break! I’ve thought about resolving that situation, one way or the other.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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